Character Stakes: The Key to Making Readers Care

Character Stakes: The Key to Making Readers Care

Character Stakes: The Key to Making Readers Care

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Recently I’ve become a full-on middle-aged cliché and taken up pickleball.

I’ve never played much organized sports. My athletic pursuits tend to be noncompetitive ones: waterskiing, hiking, strength training—activities where I’m focused more on the doing of the thing than on winning.

Luckily, the group of us who started playing together are longtime girlfriends, our frequent gatherings consisting of easy, intimate conversation and lots of laughter.

So our pickleball sessions have been no different. We discovered an indoor court at a brewery that suits our needs just fine. It’s a space just barely carved out in their extra warehouse, bordered by insulation and I-beams on two sides, open to a dining area on another, and the fourth “wall” is made up of random boxes and beer kegs and coolers.

If the ball goes too high it’s liable to get stuck in or bounce off of an array of ducts and pipes overhead, or sometimes it just disappears behind the keg wall or into some fake plants perched above an ersatz office constructed adjacent to the court.

The odd setup changes the play a bit, but since we’re just there to have a good time we go with it: If the ball ricochets off any surface and onto the court, it’s in play. If it bounces off the ductwork and comes back to your own court, you just go on and hit it again. If you don’t quite hit the ball over the net but your partner can give you an assist, like volleyball, that’s cool.

We’re not looking to score points or to win. We’re just having fun.

But as is so often the case, what happens in real life isn’t the same as what makes good story work in fiction.

High Stakes Are Essential to Effective Story

The hubs and I just watched the movie Scoop on Netflix, which stars two actors I love, Gillian Anderson and Rufus Sewell.

The story is based on the 2019 BBC interview of Prince Andrew about his longtime involvement with convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein after Epstein’s arrest and alleged suicide in jail, and Andrew’s connection to one of the trafficked teens, which resulted in the prince being stripped of his military titles and royal patronages and retiring from public life.

Important note: I want to be clear before we dive into analyzing why a story I fully expected to work well didn't: My observations are strictly about the storytelling elements in this dramatization. The real-life versions of the characters represented here preyed on underage girls and women they sex-trafficked, and it's not remotely my intention to minimize or make light of that story in any way.

And also: Rampant spoilers ahead.

Let’s cut right to the chase of why this story ultimately left us unsatisfied. To paraphrase that timeless philosopher TaySway, it’s stakes. Hi. That’s the problem, it’s stakes.

Low stakes for the characters

The film opens nine years before the interview, with a paparazzo trying to chase down photos of Prince Andrew, Epstein, and the underage girls who come and go from Epstein’s New York house. He gets the money shot, if you’ll pardon the expression: Epstein and Prince Andrew in clearly intense conversation together in Central Park.

Does it make the photographer’s career? Provide the missing piece that leads to Epstein’s arrest, offering the pap redemption for a career he’s increasingly begun to think may be pointless or even immoral? Nah. It’s just another day on the job.

But surely it must precipitate a scandal!

Well, no. We rejoin the story nine years later, when that pictorial evidence of their association is a bit of a background nuisance that pops up now and then, a vexing little gadfly Andrew is eager to move past.

Verdict: Stakes too low.

That’s when we meet the main protagonist, Sam McAlister, the real-life booker for BBC Newsnight amid struggling show ratings and recent large layoffs. While the rest of the staff keeps suggesting rehashes of tired stories, Sam wants to get access to Andrew to talk about Epstein now that he’s been arrested.

Is this a story that hits hard for Sam personally because she was a victim of sexual assault or close to someone who was? Not that we’re shown.

Is her job on the line if she doesn’t book better stories? Well, not really, no more than the other 450 people who just got laid off.

Is this job especially important to her? Not that we know of. We do see her itching for a bit more credit and inclusion at work, but not why it’s especially meaningful to her character to get it, and presumably her skills and what’s presented as her massive collection of contacts would easily get her a job elsewhere.

Is there pressure in her life that means a job loss would be catastrophic? Not that we see. She is the apparent single mother of a son, but Sam’s mom seems happy to stay with him at any time, for any length of time, as Sam pursues guests for the show.

Sam’s just doing her job, and she thinks this seems like a juicy story.

Stake-o-meter: Stuck on low.

Andrew’s been haunted by these photographs and his association with Epstein and his procurer of underage girls, Ghislaine Maxwell, for years. Is it threatening his family, his position, his deeply held moral code? Not that we can see. It’s a pesky little issue that comes up now and again and Andrew doesn’t understand why it simply won’t go away.

Now, to some degree this is intrinsic to the real story and Andrew’s characterization, where much of what sank the Duke of York appears to be his seeming blithe unconcern about the gravity of his actions. But it’s hard to dramatize indifference in an effective narrative way without it simply feeling as if the stakes just aren’t that high.

Is Andrew fighting for his position in the royal family, the good works he feels he can do with it, or even the validity of the institution of monarchy altogether? That may have inadvertently been part of the fallout of his damaging interview, but it’s not what seems to lie in the balance for him or the story as he gives the interview, which is (kind of?) the climactic event of the story.

Stake tank: dipping toward the red.

Read more on deepening character stakes.

Low stakes for the climax

And let’s talk about that interview. While Andrew does in fact wind up saying some fairly unconscionable things, treating his longtime friendship with known sex traffickers as a little peccadillo, a low-key lapse in judgment, the interview isn’t the sensationalist blockbuster reckoning viewers might have felt led to expect.

Gillian Anderson, superb as always as Andrew’s real-life interviewer Emily Maitlis, very Britishly holds back and simply allows Andrew to talk himself into a corner. It might be effective journalism, but it makes for fairly low-stakes storytelling.

Emily herself doesn’t seem to have much skin in the game either. She’d like to get the interview, and we certainly see her preparing her socks off for it, but she doesn’t seem to have any deeply held personal motivation for doing so, nor anything meaningful on the line, so stakes stay right where they are: low.

Stake status: static.

Low story stakes

What about the overarching purpose of the story? Is there a bigger impact from the interview beyond Andrew’s losing his royal title and duties? Does it help raise awareness for victims of sex trafficking and lead to the ability to protect more people victimized by it? Not within the context of the story.

Does it create a reckoning for the wealthy and powerful of the world who feel they can abuse other people with impunity? No, that doesn’t seem to be addressed in the story either.

Does it at least create a tidal shift in the royal family where they realize they cannot hold themselves aloof from the law or moral and social accountability, and result in a more transparent monarchy? No, that’s not within the purview of the story either. The interview happens, Sam smiles in relief, Andrew goes off camera forever, and that’s that.

Social media buzzes about it, Emily thanks Sam, the news team congratulates itself or remaining relevant, and readers learn about the fallout for Andrew in a few title cards after the final scene.

Stakes balloon rapidly deflating.

The one bit of potential stakes I thought we might have brewing—Sam’s seeming constant distraction from her adolescent son who clearly craves her attention—fizzles out and is never really developed. The kid doesn’t seem to be struggling in any impactful way, and the one bit of tension we see—where he’s trying to tell his mother about the girl he’s interested in and she walks out in the middle of the story to chase the Andrew story—is never addressed nor resolved. Presumably everyone’s fine and this was just a regular little blip in life.

Read more on creating strong stakes.

Story Stakes Should Be Well-done, Not Medium

Like the leadup to a sneeze that never happens, hubby and I turned off the TV feeling underwhelmed and a bit disappointed by Scoop, let down by a lot of potential buildup that ultimately left us unfulfilled.

Stakes are crucial to story, one of the central legs of the holy trinity of character plot and stakes, because they give readers a reason to care what happens in the story and feel invested in the characters. If the characters don’t have something substantial and meaningful that they stand to gain or lose in the pursuit of their goals, then the story falls flat, as this one did, no matter how strong the rest of the story may be.

Read more on establishing and building stakes.

As for our pickleball gang, we’ve recently started occasionally playing in with other pickleballers, and it turns out very few other people are interested in playing the game without the clear structure of rules and the dangling carrot of winning points, so we’ve had to adapt.

It may be less fun for us personally, but if we want to expand to a wider level than just our little group, we have to meet the expectations of other players and play the game that invests and motivates them to join us.

That’s another good lesson for us as writers: We may enjoy our story for its own sake, but never forget your readers, who need more reason than that to join you for the journey.

Over to you, authors: What’s your biggest challenge in creating stakes for your story and characters? How do you make sure they’re high enough–and build them over the course of the story, to the climax?

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21 Comments. Leave new

  • Rebecca Rosenberg
    April 25, 2024 1:16 pm

    What a timely reminder. I have another scene or two to write! Ratchet up the stakes! the way you described this is a great reminder to examine the stakes we’ve set, and make sure they have meaningful consequences. Sounds like the movie could have so easily developed those and showed the consequences of the stakes.

  • Sandra Young
    April 25, 2024 1:35 pm

    I’m reworking a long-shelved women’s fiction WIP, and I’m going to imprint this wise advice into my brain as I heighten the story. In fact, I just thought of a new way to drill the stakes in the dual timeline narrative! Thank you once again for your awesome, insightful columns!

  • I watched Scoop three days ago after seeing a big build-up on an interview with Gillian Anderson. At the end I said, “Is this the end? Is Andrew not crushed? Is the Queen not pissed? Is Sam not thrilled? The random bartender was more excited than she was. And her mother–was she bragging around the neighborhood? Without stakes, a story becomes just a plot outline.

    • Yes, exactly! We both we like, “…that’s it…? That’s the end?” Very anticlimactic–it felt like just a straightforward docudrama of the facts, rather than a human story with the depth it seemed it could have had.

  • I love this line that I paraphrased in my notebook: Characters must have something substantial and meaningful that they stand to gain or lose in pursuit of their goals.

  • Boy oh boy, is this good timing or what? I’ve been editing my WIP and although there is a lot of action and plot movement, it all still feels a bit flat. I’ve tweaked emotions, tightened dialogue, but meh, not helping. Turns out…it’s stakes! (forehead slap). Thank you, Tiffany, for another illuminating blog post, it’s saved my WIP from endless rewrite. I can finally get down to business of doing the real work.

  • I haven’t seen Scope, but from what you’ve said, I wonder if the writers/producers mistakenly depended on the enormity of the crimes– the almost unspeakable ghastliness of taking advantage of young women– to stand in for stakes. Thanks for the reminder that it doesn’t work.
    In addition to being your fan, I’m a fan of Donald Maas and his posts wherein he offers questions writers can ask themselves to ramp up stakes, plot, and character. That trinity is indeed holy. Focus on those has become part of my editing process right after I get over how awful my first draft is, and decide it’s worth the time and effort to try to make it less awful. I sometimes address the intensity of the protagonist’s challenge– the impediments and other difficulties the protagonist must overcome to win.
    BTW, I share your indifference to competition and winning, but, sadly, not your adaptability.

    • It plays kind of British to me, actually–which is to say it’s understated. And also I do suspect there are nuances that I, as a non-Brit, may not feel the full resonance of. You’re right that Andrew’s behavior is ghastly all on its own. I think for a dramatization, though, I would have expected the story to focus on more of what was on the line in some way. It kept seeming like it wanted to set that up, and then just…didn’t.

      Ha, the first drafts are almost always fairly awful, or at least awful-adjacent. That’s when the magic of editing comes into play…the best part. 🙂 Yeah, Don asks good questions to dig out the heart of story. Thanks for the comment, Bob–and the kind word!

  • Christine DeSmet
    April 26, 2024 4:19 pm

    Good focus on “stakes.” In the novel I’m working on, I have realized that I have great stakes, however I’m not showing them to my best storytelling advantage. Sometimes in a novel manuscript we “assume” the stakes are evident. I’m double-checking my manuscript to make sure they are clear. I also work with novelist clients as a developmental editor and you’ve given me a good reminder to pass along to them.

    • Such a Great point, Christine. I just talked about that in a class I taught this week, that as authors we can’t assume universal stakes or values or connotations like “sibling bonds” or “marriage in jeopardy” or “baby on the way.” We still have to show why they matter to these characters in this story–specifically and concretely. Thanks for the comment!

  • Deborah Sword
    April 27, 2024 4:07 am

    A take-away for me is that stakes don’t have to involve car chases, gun fights, running for your life, captured by bad guys, or jumping from a runaway train. Stakes can be low-key if there’s something that matters greatly to the character and resonates deeply with the reader. Thanks Tiffany.

    • You put it so well, Deborah. I always say don’t think in terms of adding more “stuff”; think in terms of adding more meaning. You’re exactly right that if the character cares profoundly–and we care deeply about the character–then we’ll be invested in those stakes. Thanks for the observation!

  • Gail Trowbridge
    May 7, 2024 8:53 pm

    I love getting your takes on films and novels from an editor’s viewpoint! I agree — I also watched Scoop with high expectations, considering the stellar cast, and also felt let down. Made me wonder what The Crown writers would have done with it. Thinking of Nixon/Frost (movie?) and other plots which involve a journalist bringing down a celebrity or official. It also felt like a side-story to the big Epstein mess. It was odd. Wasn’t Prince Andrew already a cipher in the royal family even before his connection to Epstein was revealed? I did love the moment when Prince Andrew takes the BBC journalists on a tour of Buckingham Palace, AFTER THE INTERVIEW. Haven’t seen Bombshell in a long time, but that’s another journalism story which succeeded because the stakes were so clearly drawn.

    • The characterizations were really good, I agree–and yes, it said a lot that Andrew led the journalists on the tour (about him, and also about how the media treats the royal family). And yes! I was put in mind of Nixon/Frost too. Bombshell was good–felt like it had higher stakes and more payoff, to me.

      Aren’t these fun to analyze? 🙂 And yes–in the hands of The Crown creators, I think this story could have been something more effective. Thanks for weighing in!


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